Giants dig deep to turn up pressure in race for league crown
Belfast Giants 4 Coventry Blaze 1
The Belfast Giants battled through a Challenge Cup hangover but still made a winning return to Elite League action with a 4-1 victory over the Coventry Blaze at the SSE Arena last night.
The scoreline had plenty of gloss added to it when Jordan Smotherman and Kyle Baun added empty-netters inside the final minute, but the two points gained is the only thing the Giants will care about.
Captain Blair Riley had the hosts ahead after 14:19 of the first when he got a short-handed goal, before Darcy Murphy also netted with 16 seconds remaining in the first period.
The Giants were grateful for some sublime netminding from back-up Stephen Murphy - standing in for the injured Tyler Beskorowany - who made 22 saves from 23 shots, including some big stops in the third period to maintain the one-goal lead heading into the final stages of the game.
That allowed Smotherman and Baun to finish it off in style with two late strikes when Blaze netminder Matt Hackett - who had 34 saves from 36 shots - was pulled for the extra skater.
The win takes the Giants (40-12-2) just two points behind the Cardiff Devils at the top of the Elite League standings, however they have played a game more than their title rivals.
The Giants didn't have it all their own way though, despite the scoreline, and they needed their league-leading penalty kill to go six-for-six on the night to keep the Blaze at bay for much of the game.
The kill unit was called into action after just 2:14 when Jonathan Ferland (tripping) and Murphy (holding) took consecutive penalties to put the hosts on a 1:50 five-on-three kill, however the special teams came up big to keep it scoreless early on.
Although the Giants passed up two powerplay opportunities of their own, they forged ahead on the man disadvantage at 14:19 of the first.
Riley forced the turnover in neutral ice, skated in on Hackett and kept his composure to finish five-hole.
A bizarre end to the first period saw the sides taken in for the first intermission early due to a broken stanchion behind the Blaze net, with the remaining 23 seconds being played prior to the start of the second period.
When play resumed, it took just seven seconds for Murphy to double the Giants' lead, picking up a rebound from his own shot and finishing it off for the goal.
Having offered very little to this point, the Blaze somehow pulled it back to a one-goal game when Ross Venus' weak backhand shot fooled Murphy and beat him five-hole at 26:53.
A nervy third period saw the Giants continue to put plenty of rubber on Hackett, however the netminder was proving tough to beat in the Coventry net.
At the other end, Venus had two wonderful opportunities to tie the game up when he was left one-on-one with Murphy twice in quick succession, but both times the netminder shut the door on him.
The Blaze were aggressive in pulling Hackett for the extra skater with 1:32 remaining, but that only let Smotherman and Baun seal the victory late on.
The two sides meet again tonight (7pm) at the SSE Arena in the second game of their double-header.